Pour Epater Les Bourgeois

Last year around this time, for reasons of applying to teach a workshop — so, you know, not because I’m a masochist — I had to look through the net to find my reviews.

The results were mixed — on finding them, not on them being bad — including reviews I KNOW I had for stuff like Darkship Thieves.  So, I ended up trolling for reviews for every one of my books, including the fairly obscure, in fairly obscure blog.

This means, I ended up on this blog from someone who absolutely hated, despised and wanted my musketeer vampire book — Sword and Blood — to die in a fire. And not just because it was a vampire book, which one of my fans more or less drives me nuts with, by telling me that “Vampires are no, no, no.”

Most of her problems came from the fact she apparently is a big fan, not of the books, but of the Disney movie, and also that she doesn’t tolerate any deviation from her favorite version.

But one of them first made me shocked, and then made me laugh.

That was the first paragraph in which she went on and on about how I was afraid to use the word “penis” and had used “member” instead, and how wrong this was.

It was almost as funny as when some ijits thought that Kate — our resident Aussie, to whom “Bugger” is not an obscene term, and who can speak in single entendres, and does — used “Glittery Hoo Ha” to refer to certain vagina-obsessed precious snowflakes because she was afraid to type the word vagina.

To level set, yes, I do know that penis — and the other clinical terms — are supposed to be invisible in romance.  I’ve been through any number of “how to write erotica” (not that I ever did, but I find it useful for writing “immediate” fiction.) classes, and they always tell us not to use “cutesy names”, just use penis, or vagina.

I do understand it, too, because if you write contemporary romances with a high amount of sex in them — and let’s be blunt, okay, that kind of novel is often used as erotica/porn by the female readers — you don’t want anything (including mood or introspection) to detract from the sensations (which is why books on writing erotica are so useful for people who want to learn immediate/sensation oriented fiction. which is useful for a bunch of other things.)

But here’s the thing, Sword and Blood, while involving sexual sensations, because duh, it’s that sort of vampire book, and it’s part of a vampire’s arsenal of tricks in that world, is NOT a romance or an erotica book.

More importantly, while it’s third person, it’s third person CLOSE IN. I.e. I’m…. thinking through the character’s voice. And the main character, Athos, is not only a man of his time but also, bluntly, a profoundly repressed man, which is part of what makes him vulnerable to the attack.

In the middle of the very formal and archaic language, a “penis” looked incongruous.  I am sensitive to words — I used to be a poet. Yes, in full recovery now. Though the other day I wrote a poem on my website, it’s been… 31 years, five months and twelve days since my last sonnet — and that “penis” waving around in the middle of a poetic beginning made me think of my father in law’s tendency to tell off-color jokes using clinical terms.  Which, for reasons I can’t attempt to explain, completely short circuits the funny, by popping you out of the jocular make believe universe such things exist in, and into real life clinical.  You know “And then, before he put his penis in, he examined her vagina and said ‘is it supposed to present with that kind of rubor?'”

Even if you’re familiar with the medical terms, it is simultaneously not funny at all, and you kind of feel sad for your father in law, who is trying to be “one of the kids.” (When we were in our forties and he in his seventies. Nothing really shocking. Also, honestly, the stories were usually fairly innocuous.)

Well, I must have rewritten that sentence fifty times, trying all sorts of terms, including “hardness” and “erection” which frankly the character would know. He spoke Latin.  But member was the only one that didn’t violate the feel of the other words.

It would be like, to remove the sexual context, if I were writing about a Victorian’s little finger, from third person close in and said “Anabel had a cut on her pinkie.”

If I am, even vaguely, trying to use “period evocative” (you can’t use period accurate, without completely messing up your readability) language, that sentence would stick out like a skunk at a ball.  You’d use something like “Anabel had a cut on the smallest finger of her right hand.”

Note, that I know of, pinkie doesn’t embarrass anyone and is not considered a swear word in any language. But it is by far too modern, and it causes a sort of shock, by breaking with what the character would have thought.  Not a good shock. It can, frankly make you burst out laughing, like the regency romance where they guy stops and asks the girl’s “affirmative consent” before kissing her.

Which is why I replaced “penis” with “member.”  I’m not going to say it was the best choice possible (How in heck do I know? I’m just the writer. But it seemed to me to preserve the veils the character himself tended to put between him and reality. And yes, for those who are inevitably going to ask, there WILL be a sequel. It will probably be next year, though, as this year’s schedule is full/overfull with stuff that’s been waiting longer.) What I’m going to say, OTOH is that I find it bizarre someone would think I made that choice, not — perhaps — out of misguided style concerns, but because I’m “too delicate” to type “penis.”

This seems to be a persistent idea among a certain segment of writers who both want to push the envelope and have no clue where the envelope is.  They seem to think that writing explicit is sex is going to shock a majority of readers, because APPARENTLY we live in a time of extreme longevity and most of the readers they imagine are circa my grandmother’s generation (and even then. I mean, I’m sorry, my grandmother was a practical woman who lived in a village. She might say “that’s not decent to talk about” but I’d bet you good money no mere word would shock her.) These largely imaginary readers will clutch their virginal bosoms, sigh “Oh, my stars and garters” and faint onto a convenient sofa when hearing “penis” or “vagina.”  (Note to the young, the innocent and the doomed reading this: Victorians mostly put on a good act. Pornography was widely distributed in their time, tattoos were common, as were private piercings, and oh, yeah, the reason they put little skirts on their furniture legs — though that was not as common as your professors told you — IS NOT because they were prudishly innocent, but because they were imaginatively sexual, and could see sexual suggestion even in table legs.  As Agatha Christie, who was born in the Victorian age, often has her younger characters say: “Victorians had minds like sinks.” And by this you shouldn’t understand scrubbed clean sinks.)

Look, let’s level set. I’m 57. I know this seems ancient to anyone under 35.  Heck, sometimes it feels ancient to me. But I grew up in Europe, in the seventies.

Not only wasn’t I protected from bad words (and I probably have a much larger vocabulary than most of you for those) but the seventies were a little goofy. Society had taken Freud between the teeth, so to put it, and found it really important that no one — including pre-pubescent kids — be repressed or prudish, because that would ultimately lead to neurosis.

While I was lucky not to grow up in an Academic environment, where child abuse was considered therapeutic, we brushed the edges of it by virtue of being geeks. The number of times some skivvy guy told me that I was prudish because I refused to get naked for him to ogle, by the time I was, oh, 12, if converted to pennies would probably be as tall as I am.  On top of which I read everything that came into the house. The “everything” included my sister in law’s anatomy books. (She’s a medical doctor.)

So, yeah, not only do I know the clinical words but, having grown up with a much older brother and his group of hippie-ish friends, who talked uninhibitedly in front of me, because frankly most of the time they forgot I was tagging along, by the time I was 11 or so there was very little of a sexual nature that anyone could say which would shock me.

Now, I grant you, having grown up in Europe, I probably had a more…. ah… explicit upbringing than most Americans. But I have a lot of friends within five years of me one way or another, and I don’t know a single one who would be shocked — shocked, shocked — at the word penis. Or vagina. Or uterus. Or really vulva (which is what the ignorant idiots mean when they say vagina.) Or labia. or any portion of the anatomy.

While I was once sent to bed without dinner for mentioning sperm at the table, (I had been reading my brother’s biology book. I think I was five. The sperm in question was I THINK sea urchin’s. Or something like that) it wasn’t because my mom had never heard the word, but because like the Victorians she had a mind like a sink, and assumed I was using the word to launch into a description of human reproduction (she never let me finish the sentence) and didn’t want the guests to think they let me read porn.

Seriously, guys, I can’t imagine anyone over …. oh, 15 thinking that the word is very very shocking.  And I can’t imagine anyone over 20 getting a titivating feeling from saying it or reading it. Nor can I imagine anyone so naive that they think the word is shocking.

So, what is the point of all this? Other than my being amused and a little bit annoyed at someone thinking I suffer from an excess of prudishness?

Well, mostly because that type of calibration: what you consider beyond the pale, and what your readers consider beyond the pale, are highly subjective and personal. So this is an area to navigate with extreme care.

I know this because naturally — as in by natural inclination — I don’t have the same stops other people have. Both in terms of gore and in terms of sex, I can write things I think make perfect sense, or even are poetic or beautiful or define the character perfectly, and not realize my audience is between speechless and throwing up. (For instance, in one of my books, a character divides into male and female and has sex with him/herself. Now, see, to me this was all symbolic and stuff. But there were…. letters. Never mind.)

You can create entire worlds where the sexuality of the natives upsets a lot of people.  And you might not know it.

On the other hand there is the other side of this. If you think that you’re writing to shock others, but it turns out the ones you’re trying to shock have more experience and a far twister imagination than you (well, the older ones have had way more practice) yu might arrange the emotional balance of your book to have a particular punch at a sex scene or even a kiss. And you might not realize that because your readers don’t find it shocking, the whole section falls flat.

OR of course, you might think you’re being a brave and bold pioneer and, even if your editors happen to be equally clueless, you might ONLY be rewriting The Left Hand of Darkness. With a strong possibility that it’s inferior to the original.

Look, as I’m fond of telling you, fiction is not an art created with words. It’s an art created with emotions.  This means you need to be very careful about the emotions you evoke, and making sure they are what you MEANT to evoke.

This means, if you’re writing to make the Victorians swoon, or pour epater les bourgeois, make sure your audience is — in fact — a cardre of time travelers. Because if they’re not, you might have to find another way to make an emotional impact.

Sex and sexual attraction, like the entire panoply of human experience are ultimately just colors with which to paint your canvas. But before you do it, make sure that your reader will perceive that slash of bright red as bright red, and not the palest pink.

36 comments

  1. “(For instance, in one of my books, a character divides into male and female and has sex with him/herself. Now, see, to me this was all symbolic and stuff. But there were…. letters. Never mind.)”

    Send these morons a link to “Time Enough for Love” and a suggestion that you aren’t exactly breaking new ground. Also that they really need to think through some of where Heinlein was going in light of where we are with using the mappings of the human genome to figure out which of your genes have expressed and cancer treatments. Honestly…..

  2. Ah, the bottle of the sexes. Shame that these days some people have been swilling from a vintage gone sour. Fighting against biology is just pure foolishness.

    We’ve several thousands of years in our written history of living together as men and women. More in oral and myth. There’s reasons for how we’ve done things this long. Family structure has been pretty stable for some time now. Poly arrangements are outliers, and the whole messed up theory that was batted about a couple decades back about every woman being a child of multi-tens of generations of *nothing but* rape is purest hogwash.

    One ought to be very careful in tinkering with such old mechanisms, especially the social-biological ones. Sure, larger populations these days can accommodate a larger total load (being nonfunctional, nonreproducing, or outrght deleterious). But systems that become too dysfunctional tend to fail. Sometimes explosively.

    I don’t mind a bit that others find their bliss in different ways than I’d prefer. Just don’t go
    forcing them on me and mine!

      1. Among the things that have always evoked a giggle from me are the flowery circumlocutions twentieth century erotica writers like to use in place of anatomical terms…often because they think those phrases mark them as stylists. One that I’ll never forget is: “He assaulted her temple of Venus with his velvet-headed love hammer.” Made me think of a construction worker doing odd jobs at an archeological site. YMMV.

        1. I read an article about translations of classical Chinese pornography, which used such indirect and convoluted terminology that even experts in the language were often at a loss to tell what was supposed to be going on…

        2. Right? And since my character is 18th century, I COULD have used that (well, late 17th, but….)
          I just tried to tone it down from the clinical, because the character wouldn’t think clinical.

        3. “Velvet-headed love hammer” isn’t quite as good as the best bad fanfic one I’ve seen (“man-carrot”), but it’s not bad. I may have to remember that one.

    1. “…the whole messed up theory that was batted about a couple decades back about every woman being a child of multi-tens of generations of *nothing but* rape…”

      You know, it never fails to amaze me that anyone would seriously entertain that notion. Who the hell have they been hanging around with? A bunch of frail daisies?

      Even the most brutal man has to sleep sometime…

        1. Not to mention it ignores that men are conceived the same way as women, what ever that is or was.

          Seriously, they need to study some biology.

  3. To bring polyticks into it – Leftists are always prudish because sexual activity goes to the heart of individual actions and freedoms the state has just a horrible time controlling. I suspect they know they will never have a handle on people to that extent despite wanting to make them into proper little robots programed as they wish.

      1. It’s an odd cycle when it comes to sex and the single commissar.

        During the pre-Revolutionary phase, lots of free love and wild snogging of all sorts is encouraged.

        But, after the Revolution, prudishness becomes the name of the game, comrade. Gays get sent to the gulag, and extramarital hanky panky is a crime against Big Brother.
        Unless you are a member of the Secret Police, and can arrest and interrogate attractive ladies to your filthy heart’s content (roast in Hell, Beria).

        1. Actually, after the Revolution, all free love all the time — until they realized they were ruining society. Lenin loved the story about how his secretary talked to her father and he didn’t recognize her. But by Stalin’s time, a comrade could be denounced for neglecting his family.

  4. I personally always when they break up a good romance with just sex.

    I also am fighting my MC because she wants to talk about sex in far more detail than I want to write, and we’re trying to find a compromise.

    (I want to write light fantasy romantic comedy, but will my characters let me? Noooo!)

    1. Let this prurient MC talk about it, then– I can see this as an effective running gag (or gag-me) wherein she keeps trying to regale others with The Details, and they constantly interrupt with variants of “Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, I. Don’t. Care!” or blatantly changing the subject or such, just before she gets to the Good Parts.

      It may at least bolster the “comedy” side of it a bit.

      1. I think some of it is the potential cringe factor, and the voyeuristic Ick factor.

        If the story has been chronicling the pleasures of finding the gents room only just in time, popping a pussy pimple, the colorful details of sicking up, etc., then the same take during sex will feel right. I’ve read one or two hard-boiled sort of gritty adventure stories that did that. Andrew Klaven, IIRC.

        Otherwise it’s like the gal upthread who cannot watch the Office. We cringe for the characters, and then, pulling out of the story, for the writer.

        The biological needs an even keel, so to speak

  5. I dove into “urban fantasy” a couple of years ago. It’s not really my thing. I can see why some people might like it, but most of it seems like erotica ginned up with vampires/werewolves/etc. The sex tends to pull me out of the story. There are some I found that weren’t bad, but I lost interest in most of the genre. If I want sex, the internet is for porn. I want character development and a believable, well written, story arc. Suddenly having characters jumping into bed, or using foul language, for no real reason pulls me out of the story just as much as if Hannibal crossed the Alps with helicopters.

    1. I find I’ve taken to reading some ‘romance’ stuff of late, but when done well, the sex is “behind closed doors” and referred to with care, rather than gruesome detail. As someone I know put(s) it, “Sex is a lousy spectator sport.”

      1. About the only writer I’ve seen pull off the “sex as a spectator sport” successfully is Lois McMaster Bujold, and that’s because she’s dealing with the emotional side of the interaction, rather than the Ikea sex of Tab A into Slot B.

    2. Not helicopters, but maybe dragons … 🙂

      *puts that plotbunny into the darkest drawer of her closet*

      I thought ‘member’ suited the tone of the story better. ‘Penis’ would not have thrown me out of the story (c_k would have; that feels too modern), but yeah, ‘member’ works best for Athos’ POV.

      I prefer my Fantasy and historical fiction to be written in a not too modern language. GRR Martin, albeit grimdark and all, actually has a cadence to A Song of Ice and Fire that suits the setting. I’ve come across some Fantasy where the modern language, complete with f-bombs and ‘okay’s, felt so misplaced that I could not enjoy the books. But it seems to be a question of taste; some of those sold quite well, even traditionally.

      I go for a somewhat old fashioned tone in my Fantasy; I feel more at home writing that way. I actually use a slightly more modern language in my Roman historical fiction, since that focusses a lot on the army, and well … somehow it feels right for some of the characters to use contractions and such. But I still don’t use the f-bomb of words like ‘okay’. Or concepts that weren’t around, like adrenaline.

  6. Philip José Farmer’s Image of the Beast and its sequel Blown were the books that blew my mind about sexual perversity. A fun read that shocked me as a teenager, which makes a lot of the modern complaints look rather lame.

    1. Sometime I wonder how many have read the original Venus in Furs… yes, by.. him, with that named after him. I admit while I have done that, I haven’t the nerve/stomach to read.. Marquis. Even ox have.. standards. Low, sure, but still have them.

      1. I did. For 2020, nothing spectacular. What shocked his contemporaties wasn’t so much the sex stuff as blasphemy, which was a crime in France at the time.

  7. You’re always going to have nitpickers and some of them won’t know what they’re talking about.

    Of course, pleasing every reader is impossible.

  8. If it’s part of the story flow, I can deal with a few hickups. It’s when I start hitting deliberate road bumps, something that throws me out of the story, something that makes it difficult to get back into it. Those quickly lead to actual road blocks that, pre e-books, would see that particular piece of printed trash tossed down, thrown against the wall, or in a couple of cases, thrown directly into the fireplace. (Now it’s just the delete button). It’s got to be about the story, location, time and the characters. Few things I despise more, to give an example, are those “scribblers” who attempt to write in a historical setting with 21st century mores and language so as to make it “relevant”.

  9. I recently read a series (until I caught up to the author; I’ll probably not continue) that overflowed with explicit sex. Some of it was necessary, or at least enhancing (“enhancatory”?), to the plot. Most of it was not. I got to the point that I just flipped forward a few pages when a sex scene started. I keep meaning to leave a review. He does warn readers that it exists, but not how much is gratuitous.

    I find something remarkably similar in LitRPG books: Once the player and/or item stats start being mentioned, I just skim forward until it is over. Now that I’m thinking about it, order of battle for spaceship encounters are much the same. I do not care how many frigates, destroyers, cruisers, and/or dreadnoughts are about to engage – especially if you have not defined the terms, which don’t even have agreed upon definitions for on-Earth naval ships.

    I have to really want to know how things turn out to put up with any of that.

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